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GIRN v. to complain peevishly


The above meaning of the word ‘girn’ now is the most common and the one known to most Scots speakers and there are many examples in the Scottish National Dictionary, as in the following from Ian Rankin in Strip Jack:


“Edinburgh, of course, was full of them, just as it was full of hills, biting winds, and people who liked to girn about things like hills and stairs and the wind ...” [1992].


It is also frequently used of querulous children.

The original meaning, however, was ‘to snarl or grimace or gnash the teeth in rage or disapproval’ and was still in use by Alex John Williamson, a member of the Travelling community, as late as 1996 and recorded by Timothy Neat in The Summer Walkers: Travelling People and Pearl-Fishers in the Highlands of Scotland:


“Once he was working in his crofthouse when the door opened and a sea-otter came in. And it stood there girning, showing it’s [sic] teeth.”


Being a Traveller tale this of course was no ordinary otter but a little girl who has the power to change shape!

Girning with complaint was not always confined to people but can also be used figuratively as in this rather bitter example from Allan Ramsay in The Gentle Shepherd [1725]:


“What suggar’d Words frae Woer’s Lips can fa’! But girning Marriage comes and ends them a’.”


Girn is a variant from the original English to ‘grin’ as in this definition given by the Oxford English Dictionary:


“Of persons or animals: To draw back the lips and display the teeth”.


It derives from Old English grennian ‘bare the teeth in pain or anger’ which is Germanic in origin.

This Scots Word of the Week was written by Pauline Cairns Speitel of Scottish Language Dictionaries

First published 18th May 2015.